Youth and food sovereignty

Jessie MacInnis on a panel at the Youth-Led Side Event at CFS 46

Cover photo from Chapter 2 of the HLPE-FSN Report #16, featuring Jessie MacInnis on a panel at the Youth-Led Side Event at CFS 46.



Today’s youth will inherit a world burdened by multiple crises. The latest report from the High Level Panel of Experts on food security and nutrition (HLPE-FSN) of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS), “Promoting youth engagement and employment in agriculture and food systems,” examines the many ways that globally diverse youth face food systems challenges as agents of change. In line with other recent HLPE-FSN reports, the report urgently calls for a transformation of food systems and presents a series of recommended policy interventions to support youth in accessing resources, building stronger knowledge sharing networks, and in leading the democratization of social and technological innovation. Critically, the report “draws inspiration from Indigenous perspectives and philosophies of well-being, or the ‘good life/ buen vivir’, together with studies of ecological and economic sustainability […] as the basis for the sustainability and resilience of future food systems.”

We sat down with Jessie MacInnis to talk about the report from the perspective of young farmers. Jessie is an organizer with La Vía Campesina and a contributor to the Civil Society and Indigenous People's Mechanisms’ (CSIPM) comment during the public consultation of the first draft of the HLPE-FSN report. She is also a farmer from Nova Scotia, Youth President of the National Farmers Union, and has a Master in Human Rights from the University of Manitoba where she is currently a researcher studying agroecology in Canada. 

Evan: What makes the HLPE-FSN report No. 16 different from other reports addressing themes related to youth and the future of sustainable food systems?

Jessie: In my perspective, which is shared by others in the CSIPM Youth Working Group, this report did a good job of identifying the dynamic needs of young and new farmers, who are not only demanding access to resources and land, but also a transformational shift in the food systems landscape, a demand for food sovereignty with an emphasis on agroecology. This is rarely highlighted in policy reports at CFS level. This transformational approach brings to light the difference between what youth are demanding ― dignified livelihoods, the realization of rights, and self-defined, democratic food systems ― and what other reports recommend, emphasizing entrepreneurship and innovation, ultimately maintaining the status quo. We, the CSIPM youth, demand an end to food systems organized solely for the dual purposes of extraction and capital accumulation. This report integrates our vision for systematic change rooted in food sovereignty and the right to food. 

E.: This is a globally focused report, but from your perspective, why is this transformative approach important for young Canadian farmers and food systems organizers? 

J.: In the Canadian context, we are about to see a major transformation in farming demographics ― the average age of farmers is about fifty-five right now. With the transition to a new generation of farmers, there's also going to be a shift in mindset. A lot of young and new farmers come to farming with a good understanding of the challenging context that they're getting into, in terms of climate change, in terms of working in a very export-oriented and business-focused agriculture system.  However, I also think that a lot of young farmers are getting into it not necessarily just for this business side of farming. For me, farming as a livelihood fundamentally includes community building, horizontal knowledge sharing with my peers, and not only working with ecological systems, but leaving them in better shape for the future. Also, new and young farmers are getting into farming not only to provide food for themselves, their families and their communities, but also to have a say in the direction the food system is going. And that direction is more oriented towards justice, towards food sovereignty, towards equity and human rights. And that's no small thing because this new group of farmers is going to be the bulk of farmers in the future. 

E. Is there a growing contingent of young farmers moving in this direction?

J.: The National Farmers Union of Canada outlined in our report, “Who Will Feed Us? New Farmer Perspectives on Agriculture for the Future”, a number of recommendations that align with the framing and intent of HLPE-FSN Report No. 16. The vision that we describe is based on contextualized structural change of society and relationships in food systems. We highlight our proposed solutions towards food systems transformation: popularizing agroecological education and training, ensuring farmers and farmworkers can earn livable incomes, having good intergenerational transitions and transfers of knowledge, and making sure that farmers from diverse backgrounds, including from marginalized communities, have access to land and resources. We also emphasize our responsibility as settler farmers to respect Indigenous rights. We are broadly challenging the market-based system that we are living under right now, and pushing more rights-based frameworks rooted in collective action.

E.: Where do you think this report could have gone further? What key issues should have been focused on more directly?

J.: I would like to see more emphasis towards a peasants’ rights frame into the way we work towards a food systems transformation. There are articles in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants (UNDROP) that at a surface level may not seem applicable to the Canadian context, but in reality, they are quite aligned with critical rights demands, for example, with regard to migrant workers' rights. There is so much injustice for the thousands of migrant agricultural workers in Canada, and UNDROP specifically outlines steps that governments should take to ensure that their rights are being upheld. And even though Canada did not adopt the UN draft when the vote happened in 2018, nevertheless, the declaration itself is now a piece of international human rights law. So, I think new and young farmers have an opportunity to become better acquainted with what that means for our policy context to integrate more rights-based approaches using UNDROP in particular. Our capacity to make progress on the issues raised by the HLPE-FSN report will become stronger the more  people understand their rights and apply rights framing to their advocacy struggles. 

E.: In the HLPE-FSN report, we argue that agency, rights and equity are necessary foundations for youth engagement in sustainable and just food systems. You have mentioned equity and rights above; can you tell us a little about how agency is a critical piece in supporting youth now and in the food systems of the future?

J.: Agency is a vital foundational piece as youth are the ones who are pushing the hardest for the radical transformations that we don't often see in policy frameworks. In our struggle for food sovereignty, human rights, peasant rights and agroecology, and the right to food, we as the next generation of farmers and food systems actors have a stake in these policy changes. With agency, youth can resist being overshadowed by those who think that they have better answers and who wish to impose top-down solutions that dictate how we run our farms or how we participate in the food system. Youth need to be recognized as political subjects and supported as such by CFS member states. At the same time, agency is a key pillar not just in terms of policy or in restructuring the broader food system, but also in terms of the way we manage our farms and the different kinds of practices we use as the next generation of farmers. Agency is the basis for food sovereignty.

E.: Anything else you’d like to add?

Jessie: In the Canadian context, one thing that needs to be highlighted in terms of those pillars, especially of agency and equity, is the right to productive resources. These are two weak spots in Canadian agriculture and food system where we have been pushing for change. There’s a lack of access to land and to resources about alternative land tenure options, to knowledge about agroecology, while seed sovereignty is under threat. In the Canadian context in particular, pushing for our agency, equity and rights are key for a transition to a sustainable and just food system among the new generation of farmers. To me, this looks like permanent seats around policymaking tables, not just tokenism. It looks like support for our grassroots organizations to build knowledge networks and share skills, and access to alternative agriculture education and horizontal learning opportunities. 

Finally, in the Canadian context, the struggle for Indigenous rights is a critical equity and agency issue that applies not just to youth, but to the future of food generally. The right to lands and territories and the importance of Indigenous food sovereignty are their own foundational concepts for sustainable and just food systems.

Jessie MacInnis is the Youth President of the National Farmers Union of Canada.
Evan Bowness is Acting Director of the Food and Agriculture Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley and was the research coordinator for the HLPE-FSN Report #16.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of CFS nor its HLPE-FSN.